Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Dirty Wars chapters 4, 5, 6, introducing Yemen, Awlkaki continued, the first assassination

Chapter four introduces the reader to Yemen, and its leader since 1990, Ali Abdullah Saleh. Saleh has managed to stay in power for so long in part because he’s a badass, and because he ok with Yemenese engaging in terrorist activity. In fact the US actively encouraged everybody in the region to fight the mujahedeen so they weren’t really terrorists right, because they were working for us. (#sarcasm)
This was ok until the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000 which both inspired a large AQ signup and forced the US to take a closer look at Yemen.  When the FBI went to try to investigate they faced a very hostile environment, but there was a lack of interest in the case in the Clinton White House, and this did not change under Bush.
Again, one has to wonder if either administration had taken the investigation seriously-Yemen was on the radar but not in a big way-could have 9-11 been prevented? If the “war on terror had been declared in 2000 in instead of 2001, would things be different?
Saleh knew he was in a dangerous position after 9-11 and he did exactly what a smart tough guy does in that situation-go kiss the Don’s ring.  He went to the Bush White House, said the things they wanted to hear, left with a ton of money, plus funding from the IMF and the World Bank. He was expected to do something for this of course, first he was to try to get some AQ suspects-an initial attempt in Marib Province does not go well.  Most importantly he allows the US to set up a “counterterrorism camp”—i.e. allow the US to operate independently in Yemen, including the use of drones.
Chapter five continues Awlaki’s story, now in the UK.  His father convinces him to try to finish his Ph.D in the US. So Awlaki goes back, is pulled out by INS,  there had been active work while he was gone to get him if he came back, but then let go. The focus of the chapter then switches to idea that Awlaki was actually a FBI double agent. Scahill presents some compelling evidence for this, it is really fascinating and if it’s been reported on previously I completely missed it.
Chapter six describes in detail the first American to be killed by a drone attack, in Yemen, Ahmed Hijazi. The focus of the attack was Abu Ali al Harithi. Hijazi would later be connected to the “Lackawanna Six”, a supposed sleeper cell in Buffalo.  This targeted assassination of a US citizen, not on the battlefield upset human rights and civil liberties’ organization. It also upset Saleh as well as members of the CIA, concerned that this was the new policy. The Bush administration response was this was a new kind of war. Deal with it. 

Monday, May 27, 2013

Dirty Wars: chapter 3, special ops

Chapter three focuses on JSOC, Joint Special Operations Command. This group was the “covert ops” initially developed out of the failed rescue attempt of Iranian hostages. JSOC was involved with various Latin American operations; under Clinton it was authorized to do work on US soil, which circumvented the Posse Comitatus Act (prohibits the military from domestic law enforcement). This included the Branch Davidian raid and the 1996 Summer Olympics. They were group in charge of the infamous “Black Hawk Down” incident in Somalia. After that, the Clinton administration seemed to have lost all appetite for covert missions. On paper JSOC was involved in many projects but in reality nothing ever moved.
Post 9-11 Cheney and Rumsfeld needed their own paramilitary force to conduct operations-they did not want to work with the CIA, where they felt they would not have sufficient control. Basically Cheney and Rumsfeld did not want anybody to tell them anything. Really, for a bunch of guys with no actually military experience, the hubris that these guys demonstrate is really mind blowing it just as bad as you thought. Ironically, the main people in the State department who wanted a much more restricted response overall, did.
While I firmly believe the best way to stop terrorism is better foreign policy, there is a question to be asked here. If there are terrorists out there that want to kill us, and if we are going to limit formal military involvement-i.e. not invade every country, is there a role for something likes the JSOC (and drones for that matter but I haven’t got to that in the book yet)? If there is what would it look like? From Scahill’s description it would seem our use of special ops went from 1 to 10 in about a minute. Not only did usage or at least plans for usage (haven’t got to what they actually do yet post 9-11) ramp up exponentially, but so did scope, and it would appear that oversight went in the opposite direction, from 10 to 1.
In lieu of grand reversals of foreign policy that may never happen, what is the role in a democracy for something like special ops? I would like say not at all, but honestly I think that is either unrealistic or possibly unsafe (or maybe both.) How many people need to know-does it really compromise security to have (some) members of Congress know everything? Is it possible to allow isolated, “surgical” procedures, which have oversight and are functional-that don’t harm innocent people?  Or is this just not possible and every effort needs to be made to shut the whole thing down? This “surgical” role is what was envisioned by Clinton’s people prior to the Black Hawk Down incident.  Although it would seem that it was endless supervision that limited JSOC in the Clinton administration, really it seems more they were choosing to do that, so concerned of the aftermath of the Black Hawk Down incident. I have to think if they had the will they would have found a way. Cheney and Rumsfeld go 180 degrees in the opposite direction, no consideration for possible consequences or “blowback” (it’s not even clear they understood 9-11 as blowback, which many people would call it ). They just wanted to fight everybody.
It’s obviously an exercise in what if, but you have to wonder how things might have played out if the State department had been allowed to lead. I’m no Powell fan but compared to Cheney and Rumsfeld he practically comes off as a peacenik. If say there had been a genuine fight between the two what could have happened? As it was it would seem Rumsfeld completely outmaneuvered Powell, but you could argue that it wasn’t a fair fight as Rumsfeld had Cheney in his corner and Cheney had power that couldn’t really be touched. Is it even conceivable that GW Bush could have intervened and told Cheney and Rumsfeld to cut it out? I feel it’s worth noting that many, if not everybody from his father’s administration who was not in his, was against the Iraq war. He could have taken control I think if (and it’s a big if) if wanted to. Whether he really thought like Cheney and Rumsfeld, or whether he just did not fully grasp their plans and the potential consequences, I’m not sure we will ever know.
In his book “Descent into Chaos: The U.S. and the Disaster in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Central Asia, Ahmed Rashid, almost gives the impression had Bush been left to his own devices things might had been different.  But the rhetoric was divorced from reality, maybe on purpose maybe not. He really blames Rumsfeld (with Cheney’s support) for making all of the worst decisions in Afghanistan and squandering the precious good will that the US had early on. Ahmed Rashid was at least initially supportive of US involvement in Afghanistan because he though getting the Taliban out was so important. Like a lot of people he would become disillusioned when it was clear that the US’s interests in Afghanistan were not really about helping the country, but just doing the bare minimum. 

Blogging Dirty Wars, chapter two. Anwar Awlaki, 9-11, and "religious violence"

Chapter two introduces Anwar Awlaki-the first US citizen known to be targeted for assassination by the US government. Awalki was born in the US but his parents were from Yemen. His father came to the US for education and then returned to Yemen. It was his hope that Awlaki would follow in his (academic) footsteps. He did initially but became an imam, and was very popular. Taken what is publically known of his time in the US (the chapter ends with him leaving the US for Britain in 2002) there were certainly some coincidences, but nothing that definitively links him to terrorist activities.
The parts of this chapter which resonated most with me was the description of time immediately post 9-11, and how that period played out if you were Muslim. Also, what you might call the “middle class” immigrant experience. That is, people who have the means and resources to come to a more developed country for education and even to stay. For these people, who have a real choice ,there is pull between opportunities that the more developed country presents, versus the unique aspects of home. Awlaki’s father had come to the US to study, and then returned to Yemen to teach, it was his hope and expectation that his son would do the same. One the people I follow on twitter is Haykal Bafana, Yemeni national who grew up in Singapore.  It was his father’s hope that he would live in Singapore, but he ultimately (at least as of this writing) came back to Yemen. He described this in some tweets, noting that as frustrating as Yemen was, he felt called to be there. Although my own circumstances are quite different, I understand the sentiment completely. I have issues with my city and state and even country regarding any number of issues, however I’m not worried about being killed by bombs or drones. As a fortune-teller tells the character Tex (in the book and the movie) “Some will stay, some will go. You will stay.” I always thought I would go, at least out of state, but it turns out I am one who stays.
As to the time post 9-11 I remember that time personally as a time when I felt very disconnected from my culture. I felt sadness at the attacks, but not fear, I think in part because I knew quite well that they did not attack us for our “freedoms”.
I take concepts of liberty and freedom for all very seriously, so if these principles are not distributed in an equitable fashion, I do not consider that fair. I think it is this what has led me to have a somewhat adversarial relationship with my country (and my religion as well). It is also why I felt a modicum of sympathy towards people who felt they had just had enough of American foreign policy. No, of course none of the people who died in the 9-11 attacks “deserved it” but neither did the many people, in Central America among other places, that had been killed either by US forces or with full US support in the name of “freedom”. How many people have been killed by my government, in my name essentially, and if I was killed in a terrorist attack would that only be fair? No, I am not in the military but neither are the many civilians killed by drone attacks. I didn’t support these killings but since my government did am I not fair game?
The US government claimed they hated us for our “freedom”, and it was clear at least some of the country believed that, which I found so depressing. Did people really not know any history, or was it ok that the US killed people, because the US is always right, by definition. To this day, I am not sure. I recognize it is probably a little of both, although I have always clung to ignorance. However as I watch “liberals” who were so quick to criticism GWB for the same things that Obama is doing, I have to admit to myself that may not be the case.
Reading Awlaki’s and other imam’s reactions to the attacks is heart wrenching. Needless to say, none of them were prepared for such an attack and how it would impact them and their followers’ lives. As described in the book Muslim women, easily identified by their headscarfs, required escorts for safety. I have since heard of all kinds of experiences of Muslim women being harassed, attacked, in front of their children.  It makes me really sad-what kind of person harasses women and children-is that really what “America” is about? How can you claim to be about “freedom”? All major religions have had periods of time in history where they were the “other”-if it wasn’t right then why is it ok now?
I remember, locally, that immediately after the attacks that it was Japanese organization that officially came out to support Muslims. This makes perfect sense, since this was only group that could really relate to the situation. Only Japanese Americans have been accused and punished-as a group-for something they had nothing to do with, because they were easily identifiable.
I had at that point not thought very much about Muslims in this country, or Islam, and have only learned in the intervening years just how difficult that time was. My tendency is to assume that most people think like I do-most large, mainstream, organized religions are more alike then similar. They generally preach the same thing, which generally runs in line with humanist principles. Obviously, there are differences, especially in social issues and there are large cultural influences. But I could never buy the idea that Islam is a “violent religion”. Yes there are some violent Muslims, there are violent Christians too (KKK anybody?) Just as there are many Christian groups I do not want to be associated with, I can easily imagine that most Muslim are not terrorists or are supportive of them.
People who claim Islam is “violent”-particularly odd coming from the new “atheists” crowd are either ignorant of history or have some odd ideas of what constitutes “violence”.  Just to name a few, the killings inherent in the crusades, the years of religious strife in Europe in the medieval period and post-reformation, WWI and WWII by Christians. Current and recent repression by Buddhists in Myanmar and Sri Lanka of Muslims and the Tamils. Recent violence against Muslims by Hindu extremists. There is also, rarely mentioned, the broader issue of institutional violence that occurs from corporate hegemony pushed by the West (i.e. Christian majority nations) that is only resisted by relatively small groups of Christians.
By the same token, I do not think any religion makes people more violent. Whenever you get groups of people with disagreements-usually to some degree over resource allocation-you get conflict. It may manifest itself as an ethnic or religious conflict but 99% of the time the fight is really over something else quite tangible. I remember a discussion with my mother regarding the institution of the (Catholic) Church. At some point, somewhat frustrated over my frustration with the institution she said to me “God is God. But God works though people, and people are fallible”.
And that I think sums up the conflicts that we are involved with-they start and end with the inherent fallibility of humans themselves.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Yes It’s about Jobs and What’s Wrong with That-Thoughts on the CPS Closings

 There is so much to be said about the decision-made by the mayor-to close 50 Chicago schools that it is impossible to put it together in one coherent post. So let’s just focus on one particular criticism, the idea that the CTU (Chicago Teachers Union) is against this because it means their jobs. Greg Hinz states in a post while CPS has not been truthful, claiming the closings are that “good for the kids” when everybody knows it’s not, in his eyes CTU has been “if, anything, worse”. Why? The CTU is fighting for its members’ jobs. This makes the CTU worse then CPS?

CPS has
 1) lied about “savings”—any savings will be long-term and depend on may factors difficult to properly predict.  They will not be realized now, the sheer chaos that will ensue to complete the process will more likely cost more in the short-term, which completely undercuts the claim that so many schools must be closed now.

2) lied about “utilization”—there are many issues with this line but just to give a few examples when groups such as Raise Your hand insisted that there were no empty rooms in these underutilized schools there was no response, special education kids simply weren’t counted, CPS spokesperson Becky Carroll is on record claiming 40 kids in a classroom is ok.

3) claimed that kids are going better schools, in most cases they are not.

3) not engaged in any meaningful dialogue with parents or the CTU.

4) had the nerve to state at the hearing that people who couldn’t understand that closing schools would save money “did not understand economics”—this coming from a body that hadn’t release a budget yet for the next year, and in fact has released very few financial details about anything.  

So in one corner we have the CPS knowingly plunging thousands of families into what appears to a poorly thought-out, haphazard plan. (It is worth noting for all the national “education reformers” around, none appeared to have weighed in on the CPS closings. Is that perhaps because they know a train wreck when they see one and have made sure to stay away?) CPS has put young kids in real danger, both in terms of gang lines that will be crossed and the fact that many will have to walk a least a mile to school. Most significantly, and probably the least covered by the mainstream media, is the destabilization of vulnerable communities that will occur. Schools provide an important community anchor, if anything a reporter and a mayor who claim to want to reduce violence would want increase investment in these communities. That’s a tall order, and nobody really expects it. But to deliberately make things worse?

In the other corner we have the CTU, as well as various SEIU locals, who are working with parents and community members to keep schools open. Yes, they are fighting for their jobs, for the right to take care of other people’s children and get paid for it. While everybody insists that the focus should be on the children-it’s interesting how people are always insisting that adults’ interests must diverge from the kids they work or live with-the adults matter too. The adults that use the school as part of the community, the adults that have these good union jobs to support their families and communities, especially at the lower end of the income scale, these adults are important. They are more important then the small groups of executives who the mayor pays to work downtown in the name of economic development, the money that these people earn will be sent back into the community, as opposed to overseas bank accounts or tax shelters.

This, this, is worse then CPS? Oh, you might say, that’s all well and good but . . . we don’t have the money for it.

The idea that we “don’t have the money for it” is simply not true. Everybody knows that the mayor (any mayor really) of this city always has money for business interests, and even while part of the city government was claiming there was no money, another was ready with a check. In another post Greg Hinz defends the Mayor’s plan to fund a stadium for DePaul and related development around McCormick place because of . . . jobs.

These are the jobs Hinz and the mayor like, low-end retail jobs. The kind that you have to work two of to make ends meet. The kind of jobs that still require food stamps to feed your kids. The kind of jobs that even people with  college degrees are working; some sources have estimated there are three applicants for every job opening, even in such touted areas as STEM jobs.

As explained in this post by an "underachieving visionary” the kind of job where you don’t have choice in the hours (you must take what you can get, when you can get it), the kind of job you are expected to give your heart and sole into, and a random happenstance can cause you to lose it. Looking at the advertisements for jobs at the Tenement Museum, where this person lost her job, I was struck by the long list of qualifications for a job that was clearly part-time and probably didn’t pay much more then minimum wage.

But it doesn’t matter, they are jobs. These, Hinz is telling us, are the kind of jobs worthy of public money-not “salaries for members of the teachers and police unions”.  So there you go, paying public workers is not a good use of public dollars, throwing money at private entities for an economic development plan that will clearly benefit a few much more then the majority, whose planning seems as well thought-out as CPS’s plan to close schools, that is appropriate.

What is the purpose of city government? Most people would say to serve its residents, to support economic security as much as possible. “Economic security" being described here as having as many residents as possible employed at “good jobs”. “Good jobs” being those that pay at least $15 dollars an hour, some essential benefits such as sick time, health care. How to best stimulate employment is a controversial subject, if it was easy we’d had done it by now. But, up until recently it was expected that public sector jobs, mostly teachers, firefighters, police officers, were a significant “leg” of the stool.  It appears clear that federal stimulus is not happening any time soon, so states are very much on their own to create/suppport economic security any way they can. One could make the argument that in such a time a government should  try to employ as many people as they reasonably can.

The union part here is important, unionization is what can make a “bad” job a “good” one. It is accepted across the political spectrum that the way to improve wages and benefits is through a union. In a recent opinion piece economist Timothy Noah noted that:

The decline of labor unions is what connects the skills-based gap to the 1 percent-based gap. Although conservatives often insist that the 1 percent’s richesse doesn’t come out of the pockets of the 99 percent, that assertion ignores the fact that labor’s share of gross domestic product is shrinking while capital’s share is growing. Since 1979, except for a brief period during the tech boom of the late 1990s, labor’s share of corporate income has fallen According to the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute, the G.D.P. shift from labor to capital explains fully one-third of the 1 percent’s run-up in its share of national income. It couldn’t have happened if private-sector unionism had remained strong. . . But if economic growth depends on rewarding effort, we should all worry that the middle classes aren’t getting pay increases commensurate with the wealth they create for their bosses. Bosses aren’t going to fix this problem.

And apparently the mayor of Chicago isn’t either.  

Saturday, May 25, 2013

blogging Dirty Wars chapter one

I'm going to try to blog through the entire book because I think it is really important to try to grasp what is happening, how, why, and what if anything, can be done about it. Note it's a long book and there will be plenty of unrelated posts in between.

Chapter one is kind of brief overview of where we where, in term of covert activity and combatting terrorism right at 9-11. For me, it confirmed a lot of what my impressions were at the time, for the most part what things I didn't know do not come as much of a surprise. That is, the team of Cheney and Rumsfeld had some very specific, radical ideas for policies that they were starting to put into place prior to 9-11, post 9-11 there was nothing to hold them back. They had hoped to do this when working for Bush the elder, but were squashed, so they spent the intervening years planning for it.  Basically they wanted the US to dominate on a global, forceful, scale, accountable to no one. Also, they were from the beginning obsessed with Iraq.

They managed to find a kindred spirit in Cofer Black of the CIA. One of the interesting notes is how the CIA, generally and George Tenet specifically, were not actually that into the idea of extra-judicial killings. There had been some under Clinton, but had substantial oversight. Tenet would later (publicly anyway) support the Iraq war and write a really self-serving book. During the promotional tour he made an appearance on Fresh Air that came awfully close to mansplaining. So it's kind of interesting to see him, at the beginning anyway, presented as somebody with some morals.

For all of Cheney's and Rumfeld's dismissal of the Clinton administration it's quite clear in the book, as it seemed at the time, that the Clinton administration was much more on top of AQ. George W. Bush's administration (GWBA)  was just getting around to it (!) when 9-11 happened. In my mind, this issue of the GWBA simply dropping the ball never got enough play.  Forget conspiracy theories-who needs conspiracies when you have incompetence? Because logically it would seem that, if, say, the policies of Clinton had been continued, it's quite possible 9-11 could have been avoided. What if Al Gore would have been elected? This is such an important point because all of the draconian policies that went into play after 9-11 (although Scahill makes clear Cheney and Rumsfeld were headed this direction already) were sold to the public as necessary, and it's quite probable they weren't.

The main question I have starting the book is of course, how can this be changed? Is the increased power of the executive branch inevitable? It was practically stopped in the 70s with the Church committee and Cheney and Rumsfeld worked very hard to undue all the preventative measures put in place by the committee. After the wars and over 10 years post 9-11 people are asking questions--many people supportive of Obama are supportive because they think he really he going to change these policies, at some point.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

What is Between Drones and Nothing

So the president gave a national security speech. He said a lot of good things, some things had been said before, some were new.  But it is impossible at this point to take much of it seriously, it just seems too little too late.  From my twitter feed it would seem that base of the liberal support behind drone strikes is 1) that it is better then an invasion/war, and 2) we have to do something.

It should be said that it is true that drone strikes, as imperfect as they may be, are less damaging then war.  A few months ago during the 10 year anniversary of the Iraq war there was a certain amount of hang-ringing over the failure, through protests, to stop the war.  It is unlikely any protest has ever stopped any war. This does not mean to protest has no use-it serves as an important reminder to the elites of the limit of support. Noam Chomsky has often cited studies that emphasize the importance of wars which are short and which the US is certain to dominate, because support in the population is recognized to be "thin and weak". There is no question that between Iraq and Afghanistan the general population's patience with perpetual war is very weak. It could be argued that drone strikes are a response to this lack of war support, and compared to war, yes, better.

But, still really bad, this killing of people without trial or jury.  If we are not going to do drone strikes-which by some reports have killed over 1000 civillians to 400 some "combatants" -what is the alternative to "nothing"?This is especially important as many of the same people, such as myself, who do not want to see drone strikes do not want to see military interventions either, no matter how dressed up as humanitarian missions they may be. And it needs to be said that the idea that we could do "nation-building" through NGOs is a bit far-fetched as well, historical record suggests that such experiences tend to be fronts for the US government/corporate interests in some form or another.

How about we stop killing people? How about we just end drone strikes, is it possible at least some military aid could go to humanitarian aid on the ground--this could be towards education in Pakistan, refugee camps in Turkey (for people fleeing Syria), established community groups in Yemen. How about we state publicly we will not bomb Iran, and ease off on sanctions just a little. Iran, just like us, has hardliners who are simply strengthened by US and Israeli threats. If it was clear the military option was off the table that could be key to moving things forward. It would not really be giving up anything, as no rational military commander thinks bombing Iran, especially to hit nuclear targets, is really feasible.

We don't have much sway in Syria or Egypt, but we do have allies, in Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. Both these countries have repressive governments that are fully backed by the US. Bahrain, an early "Arab spring" country has been without mercy in cracking down on its dissenters- not a word from the US. To push for at least a little mercy for those who protested, to push for more equality for women and the Shia populations in these particular countries, would not take much "political capital" and could go farther toward winning hearts and minds then any drone strike. 

Of course the ultimate peace-making move would be settling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which could easy be pushed forward by the US by simply holding on to some aid money, until say, settlements are permanently halted. The current administration has shown no will in this conflict so it's hard to see anything like this happening. There is no question that the US continues to face terrorist threats but they do not "hate" us for our "freedoms" they hate us because of our policies. There are many activities between drones and "nothing" if we have the will to try.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Why the cinderblocks are not needed—a response to Megan Erickson and why leftists should unschool

I first read Megan Erickson’s piece several months ago, which I believe was several months after it was first published. I was just on the verge of subscribing to Jacobin when the piece caught my eye. I was frustrated by the piece which in some ways exemplifies the worst of the Jacobin- the blanket criticism of the white, educated, middle-upper classes for whom leftists seem to blame for much of the current political status quo.  (Granted, we have a lot to answer for.)  While Erickson’s essay is a particular response to an article about unschooling she includes enough targets it is clear she is going after the whole enterprise. In order to properly discuss home schooling/unschooling it is important to examine the dynamics of children and their families, to recognize the school as an institution and as an agent of the state is was actually designed as, and to look at role of education in current society and how it's been manipulated. 
There are many aspects of home schooling/unschooling Ericson chooses not to engage in but most disturbing in her criticism of home schooling/unschooling Erickson completely ignores the other part of the left spectrum, the anarcho-libertarian branch. Anarchists have a legitimate, if complex history on the left, most notably in social movements at the turn of the 20th century and the Spanish civil war. Current incarnations can be seen today in a variety of contexts, not just in home schooling but in young independent farmers and families embracing off-the-grid self-sufficiency through farming and alternative energy. This neglect of this part of the left is unfortunate, because although they view themselves differently there are definite points of agreement between right and left libertarianism. If a leftist movement is to grow in this country there is a greater likelihood of growth from those truly willing to embrace alternatives to the state-something any “libertarian” will support—then the current batch of “liberals” running the world. 
While I have political issues with this piece, let’s get the personal out of the way. Parents come to unschooling from a variety of places but I will just describe my own decision which is similar to people I know.  For many parents unschooling is a personal, family, decision. It is frequently a logical extension of attachment parenting, a basic philosophy of being as physically close as to your child as possible when they are very young. Yes, these are the parents that co-sleep with their children and breastfeed their toddlers. It’s worth noting these are practices very common in other parts of the world, and no self-respecting liberal or progressive would dream of criticizing such practices when done by non-Americans. As they get older these parents make a concerted effort, like 99% of all parents, of being involved in their children’s lives, as a positive influence as much as possible. Then, suddenly at about 5, or even 3, the parent is supposed to hand over their child to an institution for a substantial part of the day. This institution has a lot of rules and some values that the parent may or may not share. I am guessing that many people’s response to this something like tough, it is time for them to grow up-join the “real world”. So yes, the argument can be made that parents who homeschool are more emotionally attached to their child and maybe less anxious for the “inevitable” separation, which in our culture is determined to be, from a developmental standpoint, quite young.
So maybe homeschoolers are “overprotective”. But so what? Anybody who has young children knows that the “control” a parent has over her child’s development is debatable. Children are amazing creatures, not small adults, and how they develop is more not understood then understood. They fluctuate from apparent understanding to destructive willfulness in a moment. When they are ready to do what they want, they gain the ability to do it at astonishing rapid rates. Managing this as a parent is as difficult as it sounds, so there is a tendency to want to hurry up the process. As a result our culture is obsessed with children’s maturation.  Sophisticated people turn their nose up at child beauty pageants but the standards that most parents enforce on their own kids is not much better. From just out of the womb there is a focus on getting the baby to “sleep through the night” even though it is well established that “sleeping through the night” is normally about 4 hours until 6 months, and that even at age one eight hours of complete sleep is an ideal not a norm. Breastfeeding is, to some extent encouraged but not too long, as it might make the child “clingy" and "dependent" (god forbid a one-year-old be too dependent). Early in the 20th century temperance reformers warned that children who breastfed their babies too long were at risk for encouraging alcoholism later. As soon as they are old enough to talk and walk, up through eighteen, the tendency is to treat children like small adults. When a toddler does what he is not supposed to do the appropriate response is to correct him, model the appropriate behavior, repeat. And repeat, and repeat.  And woe to the parent who does not “punish” a young child, because of course that child will be grow up to be a spoiled, demanding, adult.  Never mind that, as anybody who has had a young child knows, if you do try to “punish” a toddler, or even a four year old, it’s rare they have the ability to reconcile the punishment with the act, let alone hold the process in their mind in a way to alter future behavior.
Now there is large body of neurological evidence to show that even teenagers, who are so often seen as adults there are states that will condemn them to death for a crime, have brains which are wired differently. That in fact, they are much more like “kids” then adults. But in our society you can’t be making children into adults too soon, so when a five year old is not ready to be separated from his mother for school, he is supposed to “toughen up”. He is five and that is the age that the Educators have determined that is the age that should be ready, and the suffering will make him a better person. In his book “Real Boys: Rescuing Our Sons from the Myths of Boyhood” William Pollack gives heart-breaking stories of young boys entering kindergarten who are emotionally in need of just a little more support. They often don’t get it, in part because they are boys who are supposed to be “tough”--to be emotional, to want mommy, is a dangerous sign of not conforming to accepted gender norms of males.
So begins the many rules of society that school, as an institution of the state, is designed to enforce. So many rules govern school, all of which I am sure started in a reasonable light but quickly take on a life of their own.  Following those rules is important-even relatively benign infractions add up and can be held against a child in a myriad of ways. As teachers themselves, home schoolers don’t really have issues with teachers, the problem is the school as an institution—an agent of the state.  Between the many rules and the nature of the education methods practiced in schools there is the impression that schools actually suck out any creativity of the child or the teacher.  In my own experience I have found most teachers, fully aware of how hard teaching a group of children is, are supportive of home schooling. 
Usually, the people most against home schooling in any form are part of the educational apparatus—administrators and the like. These people, usually the ones pushing education “reform” are dedicated to the current (corporate-driven) trends in compulsory schooling. For educator elites, the Arne Duncans of the world, both children AND teachers need to managed. Children must be taught the “common core”, children AND teachers must be tested, and tested, to “prove” performance. Please run after this stick, please jump this high, and maybe we will give you a degree, maybe we will allow you to teach, as long as you follow our rules. For this class of elites home schooling, especially unschooling actually seems to scare them. It challenges their core beliefs that there is only one way to educate a child, and it must involve them. Who else to indoctrinate the children to the norms of society?
 No matter how a parent chooses to educate their child, a lot of effort will be involved. This is obvious if the child is at home but make no mistake the parents who choose to send their child to school will be working just as hard. Whether public or private parents need to choose the school, get in the school, and then stay involved with the school in some kind of never-ending capacity.  Woe to the parent who has an “exceptional child”-it does not matter if the child is “exceptional” in a "good" way, high intelligence, or a “bad” way, say a learning disability or behavior issue. That parent will spend an inordinate amount of time with their child’s teacher, with the other professionals the child interacts with in that school, just to keep the child in school and not discriminated against. Again, it does not matter whether the child is “good” or “bad” the crime is that child is different.
In many cities such as Chicago, where I live, applying to a public school is not unlike applying to college. Private schools, being private, of course involve tuition  but a fun trend in Chicago is parents contributing money, often in the forms of private auctions, fundraising parties and the like for extravagances, like art programs. This is one of the many ways “public” schools in wealthy neighborhoods differ from “public” schools in poorer ones. My family could of course move to the suburbs where theorically the schools are better although the choice is much less. Both my husband and I work near or in the city, and it is important to me, for economic and social reasons to live in the city so I do not consider this an option. I want my children to live in a city, and I do not think suburban schools are really any better in terms of the school-as-an-institution. So I could put time, energy, and money into “school”, an institution who I may not like, or I could put that time, energy, and money directly into my kids.
Ericson’s essay does not even attempt to consider any of the personal; she obviously has never met any unschooling kids or their parents. She starts off describing her early thoughts as a teacher “I was so afraid of humiliating kids . . . " and then projects her insecurities on to unschooling parents “It is this false and misguided sense of children’s fragile identity that informs the educational philosophy of ‘unschooling”.  She states that it is “preferable for teachers to guide children without “molding or forcing them”.  I agree this is an ideal, I would question if a school is the best environment for this. Further, she claims that Paul Goodman and John Holt were “committed to delaying socialization in children, regarding growth as an individual solitary and natural pursuit that must be protected from the corrupting influence of adults.”
The supposed lack of socialization among home schooling children is an old canard that refuses to die. Unlike their schooled peers, most home schooling children spent a lot of time around adults, children their own ages as well as children younger and older.  It is not clear to me how people like Erickson envision how unschooling families live—does she think we lock our children in their rooms, to better pursue their growth, and to protect their “fragile identity”? Most home schooling children, truth be told, spend a fair amount of time in their home but also out in the community with their family. At home and in the community they develop closer bonds with their siblings and their parents, in a more natural context. In Erickson’s essay she states that I am “ . . . sparing children the discomfort of conflict”. There is no conflict in the home apparently-among siblings? What an oasis of peace the Erickson household must have been!
Schooled children spend their day in an artificial setting—a group of kids all the same age with one or two adults in charge, somewhat removed from the world, and come to their home with the homemaking and other chores magically accomplished. For kids who go to school, school will be always be their primary community, but for home schooling kids the world we all live in, is their primary community. They are intimately connected to the rhythms of everyday life, at home, in the neighborhood, and even in the world. Our family is involved in a variety of activities, some organized by other home schoolers and some through the community with kids who are schooled. If you want to see what schooled kids are out of the school visit a museum when schooled kids are on a field trip—they quite literally run around like they are out of prison.
 I was surprised to learn from Megan Erickson’s essay that those of us who choose to unschool awe are supporting “primitivism” and are “sentimental” and “paternalistic”. There’s no paternalism in schools? An institution that ranks children and tests them to no end? Where there is a strict hierarchal control? I was also unaware as I read further I am, by choosing to home school “ in support of burning down schools, refusing to pay taxes, and that I am part of a process that is adding to the  “ . . . devaluing of care work . . .” Devaluing of care work, I guess parents who choose to stay at home with their kids don’t understand the value of care work? Really, how does one value care work more then being with their kids for most of the day?
There is no question that most home schoolers are probably to the right of the political spectrum and I definitely part from other writers such as Goodman or John Gotto—I am not against public schools, I am not in favor of an a la carte tax system. But just because this is the case does not mean home schooling/unschooling is inherently a right-wing endeavour—I agree with Goldstein that words like “freedom, autonomy, and choice” should not be freely given up to the right. Most home schoolers from the right-wing spectrum do so to avoid what they view corrupting influences from society and the state. While I imagine that the negative influences I see are different, I think many people from the left-wing spectrum can find many corrupting influences from society and the state present in schools as well.
I fully recognize that public schools are part of the world, and I hope that the people who work with them and in them will work to make them humane as possible. I recognize the ability to home school it is a gift of sorts that I did not earn but rather an option allowed by my social status. I would fully support policies that would allow more who desire to do it, but in the meantime I know many people must use schools. In some ways I view the public school system as like any other public service-health clinics, transportation, etc, which I rarely if ever use, but this does not make me “against them." I would like these services to be provided for, as I know many people do need them, and I may need them some day.  In fact, in many communities homeschoolers use school resources in a variety of ways-as they are legally entitled to. Most importantly home schooling and unschooling is “choice”. It is not much of a “choice” if there is no public school to go to. It is quite common in unschooling families to have, at any one time, a child in school for a period of time, or even for a child to ultimately choose to go to school.  Good public schools are good for the community in a variety of ways that home schoolers/unschoolers will benefit from as well as children who go to school.
Erickson’s critique of self-guided learning lacks basis in reality as well, complaining that self-guided learning “  . . . contradicts everything we know about learning . . . students also need scaffolding, in the form of ‘modeling, direct teaching, and prompting’  . . . a combination of direct instruction an real life examples is a more effective way to teach”. 
Unschooling means different things to different people, most people would agree with the term “child-led” meaning that the child generally decides what to pursue or not pursue (in come cases, as I pointed out, this will lead them to school).  This too will vary by age and kid, as kids get older there does tend to be a focus on topics and techniques more similar to school. As a fellow unschooler once remarked, unschooling is not the equivalent of putting a sheep out to pasture for 10 years and then checking on it.  Stating that you unschool really just mean you do not use a formal curriculum, it does not mean you do not do anything academic. Contrary to what some people may think, kids want to learn about the world and unschooling parents absolutely engage their kids on topics, frequenting prompting and modeling. Do parents do this as well as somebody with an education degree? Probably not as good, but what the home schooling parent loses in formal training she/he gains in time and energy devoted to one child, not thirty. After all, does that person with a degree know my child the way I do? Can that person work with my child one-on-one until my child “gets it”? Furthermore in this era of constant testing just how much time does this teacher have to do any teaching other then what the “experts” have decided is most important? Erickson continues to state that learning depends on things like recognition of text, structure, ability to recall, automaticity and pattern recognition. I don’t really question these points, but does she really think only a certified teacher can do them, and it has to be in a building called a school?
Erickson also pulls out the other popular myth about unschooling:
There’s another aspect of Taylor’s argument that I find troubling. Why shouldn’t kids be asked to put away their crayons and go to lunch at the same time? Why do we assume that clear boundaries, a schedule, and a sense of hierarchy are so threatening to students?”
It’s worth mentioning here that almost any discussion of homeschooling with a doubter sooner or later devolves into this argument—well there are lots of things that you learn from school that are not about academics—things like when to stand up, when to sit down, how to follow instructions. Yes, I would agree there are many things you learn in school that are not strictly about academics, like the importance of knowing your place in society—a definition of socialization by the way—of how to do what you are told, who it is acceptable to vote for, and who are the Very Serious People who should be respected and believed.  The idea that unschooling encourages “ . . . sparing children the discomfort of conflict . . . what about the interests of others “ again, indicates an ignorance of how home schoolers actually live.  My kids have to learn to live with each other much more then their schooled peers, the home schooling activities feature kids their own age as well as kids older and younger. When you have a large group of kids engaged in self-directed activity, you have conflict. Among homeschoolers/unschoolers this conflict is usually mediated by the kids themselves (as opposed to arbitrary judgement from an adult, or even the police/security officer). Work it out—yourselves—or we go home is a frequent phase uttered among my people.  Regular contact with adults who are not their parents is a positive as well; unschoolers learn to respect adults but are able to relate to them more as people instead of the “other”.
            Erikson then argues children of color need school, so they can speak proper English and so they can learn to survive oppression. This may be, it seems an odd digression from the entitled white people she was complaining about earlier. However this line of reasoning is particularly striking when one considers the “school-to-prison pipeline” and “zero tolerance” policies, which have disproportionately affected children of color. As recently evidenced by the Kiera Wilmot case these policies are so expansive as to include science experiments. For all the talk of encouraging risk-taking, experimentation, you know the things that will “win” the future (i.e. beat the Chinese) schools are more and more stifling free expression then promoting it. It would seem to me that children of color could learn as much about surviving oppression through the closer relationships with their family that home schooling provides and experiences in the community that are real-life based, plus they are much less likely to get arrested.
            What ultimately distinguishes home schooling especially unschooling parents from their schooling brethren is a basic faith in their child. That, in that individual child’s essence (their DNA if you want to be scientific) is what they need. That the role of parents and the community is to nurture the child, to support and protect the child, and as that child becomes an adult, help that child find her or his place in the world.  There is no reason that this process cannot happen in schools, and it does happen on a regular basis. The inspiring activism of CPS students in response to testing and the school closings is a testament to this. I went to public and private schools and generally had a positive schooling experience across the board. I myself teach at a community college. But observing the current landscape is upsetting. Increasingly—against educator’s own desires—public schools are becoming the playgrounds of “reform” that is cooporate-driven.
            Some of this comes from the myth that education can solve all of society’s woes, particularly poverty. Have a poor child? Well get that child an education and all will be ok! Increasingly, this is showing not to be true but reasonable people should have never bought that line in the first place. No education can substitute for a supportive, loving, safe, home environment. The way to a supportive, loving, safe home environment is economic security. Reasonable people can debate the best way to provide economic security but certainly this would involve less of a focus on “the children” (every politician’s favorite tag-line) and on their parents. Educating their parents, getting their parents good jobs-jobs that pay and have essential benefits-and giving those parents real financial and emotional support (school-based or community-based social services for example) would do more for “the children” then any afterschool or pre-K program. But while policies supporting “the children” can always find some support, polices to make people less poor, especially when they are not white and are determined to not be “deserving” are a bit more difficult to get off the ground.
The concept of education as a magic key that opens all doors is not limited to the poor; it is a mantra among the middle and upper classes as well. “Elite” schools  (public and private) start as early as preschool age, with “interviews” for the kids (observing play usually) and the parents. The idea that a child’s ability can be reasonably assessed and predicted at age 3,4, or even 5, is laughable. But to parents aiming for the “best” for their children the admissions process is deadly serious. Why? Well you need to get your child into a good preschool to get into a good elementary school to get into a good high school to get into a good college to get a good job. Got that? So kids are subjected to ending testing, engagement in afterschool activities they may or may not be interested in--you cannot build your resume too early--extra classes to give them that “edge” that will get them into—insert your favorite elite school here. The reward for all this focus and dedication? Debt loads of $100,000 or more, and a (part-time) job at Target. You know what, my twelve year has the skills to work at Target right now, thanks. But of course this trajectory I have just outlined can be avoided if you have the “right” skill set-cue the Mandarin immersion classes, the ipad at kindergarten, just get into the STEM field and it will be ok. But the fact is unemployment is high for all fields, and many companies hiring STEM graduates either outsource or fill their quotas with H1-B visas—the  better to drive down wages (which is why these companies support immigration “reform” by the way).
The fundamental reason of why I unschool, is my choice to support institutions other then the school.  As an institution schools are designed to enforce what our society deems important, and values of the state--many which I do not support. These are values that have encouraged war, an economy that distributes the wealth upward, and has regulated the poorest of our society to charity. Compulsory schooling was begun to prepare people for factory work—not to make them think. I certainly support public schools as I recognize for many families there is no “choice” about it. But I can work to change the state in other ways, and I choose to do that.
Ericson’s essay has a definite Marxist undertone. Of course this should not be surprising in Jacobin, which has clearly stated its Marxism, but Jacobin is also claiming to be a journal of the left, and left is not just Marxism.  Erickson clearly believes that for a proper society we need schools—schools to impart the rules of society, where students can learn how to properly respond to cues and to orders, when given by the ruling class. Marxism, when utilized politically in this fashion, does not look much different from fascism, it just has different ideas on who that ruling class should be.  
Is this want we want from the left? Many of the left identify strongly with the Occupy movement, whose politics align much closer to the anarcho-libertarian model—consensus, a “flat”, truly democratic structure. This is something we should work for in all our institutions, but if we feel we cannot do it we should remove ourselves from those institutions and create our own. It is much more likely the people most interested in this model are not the liberals who have benefited from corporate manipulation of the state, but the people at the other end of the political spectrum.  Honest libertarians, even of a more conservative nature, do not support intervention in other countries either in terms of war, drones, or other forms of support that rarely benefit the native population or people in the United States.  Most right-wing libertarians support privacy, civil liberties, far more then the average democrat, who is ok with killing people as long as it is “our guy” and not “their guy”.  Furthermore, many right-wing libertarians support an “anti-rentier” agenda, decreased corporate subsidies, and an end to “to-big-to -ail” banks.
Certainly, there are many points of disagreement, but by recognizing I didn’t “have” to send my kids to school I’ve recognized a lot of other things I don’t “have” to do. Instead of supporting public schooling by demeaning those who choose another path, it would it helpful if people like Megan Erickson recognized what we all have in common-which is a radical change in the current structure of politics and society. We will get there faster working together.